Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Base Camp

Sorry for the radio silence.  I’ve been camping on one of the remotest spots on the remotest inhabited island in the world!  On the plateau above Sandy Point - the easternmost point of Tristan.  We travelled from the settlement by small boat, leaving just after bad weather cleared – and returning just before it set in again five days later.  But in case we got stranded (which we nearly did!) we took enough food, clothes and kit for a fortnight.

Carrying heavy rucksacks with survey equipment, tent, sleeping bag and food up the steep escarpment was hard work.  Especially going through Bog Fern (Blechnum palmiforme) and dense patches of Island Tree (Phylica arborea).  I’ve already mentioned how difficult it is to get through Bog Fern but that pales compared with Island Tree which forms a dense scrubby woodland tangle with fallen and standing deadwood.   (Island Tree is a member of the Rhamnaceae family and native to Tristan da Cunha group and Amsterdam and St Paul in the Southern Indian Ocean.)  It’s just as well my South African work partner is pretty handy with a machete.  I followed him in a hail of wood chips and cut branches!
Sunrise over Tristan
The soft spongy ground also makes the going hard.  It is quite amazing.  Slow-decaying mosses (including Spagnum recurvum), lichens, ferns and flowering plants make a dry light peat.  It sinks 4 inches with every step and makes normal tent pegs useless.  Pity we hadn’t anticipated that!  So we improvised with long wooden stakes and guys tied to trees and ferns.  A nesting Atlantic Yellow-billed Albatross (Molly) and several tame house mice shared the site.
Dinner with mice and mollys.

After a good night’s kip and a breakfast of porridge oats and cold water we set off at 6.30 for a full day’s survey work.  Apart from the wildlife and scenery a highlight of the day is lunch.  It’s amazing how good 5 day old sandwiches can be.  Mind you, home-made brown bread, with cheese, roast tomatoes, lettuce and Mrs Ball’s fine chutney does make an excellent sandwich. Oh aye, and big slices of home-made fruit tea cake!  We return 12 hours later after only covering a few kilometres to write up notes, process data, press plant specimens and have dinner (spaghetti al ragu) before dusk.  
Bootlace Fern (Radiovittaria ruiziana)
The flora was different from what we had seen elsewhere. This side of the island is in the lea of the prevailing westerly’s and the vegetation is more luxuriant, creating a humid microclimate – particularly in narrow gulleys or ‘gutters’ – for some of the rarer ferns like Athyrium medium and Hypolepis rugulosa. Though both of these were still unfurling and may have been overlooked previously.  For the first time, we saw Cardamine glacialis and the endemic Ranunculus caroli in flower.  It was great seeing several big populations of Trichomanes angustatum and abundant Hymenophyllum tunbrigense but puzzling to only very rarely find the brilliantly named endemic, Bootlace Fern (Radiovittaria ruiziana).

Typically we recorded about 50 species in a 1 km square. A few are dominant (like Bog Fern and Island Tree) or abundant (like Island Berry (Empetrum rubrum) and fern species Blechnum penna-marina and Ctenitis aquilina) but most are only occasional or rare. In this area there are few non-natives. The most widespread is Yorkshire Fog, locally called Farm Grass (Holcus lanatus).  All others are rare and only found in the gutters and gulches. They include Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum), Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and Common Dock (R. obtusifolius).
The Descent to Sandy Point

After an exciting boat journey, we returned to a ritual round of everyone's house to thank the crew and skipper and celebrate a safe return with a beer (or two).   And, for me, presents of home-made cakes, bread, mutton and even a roast beef dinner!  The islanders are amazingly kind and generous.

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